F-35A Makes Air Show Demo Debut as Program Picks up Speed

An F-35A Lightning II from Hill AFB, Utah, performs a flight demonstration for an audience at the Paris Air Show June 19, 2017 at Le Bourget, France. Air Force photo by TSgt. Ryan Crane.

Le Bourget, France—The F-35A made its first-ever public demonstration flight here June 19, performing a six-minute routine meant to showcase the stealthy strike fighter’s combat capabilities. Lockheed Martin chief test pilot Alan Norman noted the routine, which closed out the day’s flying schedule, was done in a combat-ready aircraft. It included a high-rate-of-climb afterburner takeoff, a 100-knot 50-degree angle of attack low-speed pass, and a 7G minimum-radius turn.

Lockheed Martin designed and flew the routine because of the Air Force’s resource limitations surrounding the F-35, although Lockheed and USAF officials noted this is exactly how the F-22’s air show routine also began a decade ago. USAF is working its way through pilot and maintainer shortages that limit its F-35 flexibility, and the service also wishes to increase its Lightning II buy rate from 46 aircraft per year to 60.

A pair of F-35s from Hill AFB, Utah, were brought to Paris for the demonstration so that operational, combat-ready aircraft in the most current configuration would be the ones flying and on display. Col. Todd Canterbury, director of USAF’s F-35 integration office, stressed, “This aircraft is operational, it is ready for combat,” and it offers “unmatched lethality.”

Canterbury noted that in April Red Flag operations, F-35s tallied a 20-to-1 kill ratio against adversary fighters, but said that lopsided number was not the important takeaway. More impressive, he said, is the way the F-35 makes USAF’s fourth-generation aircraft better. For example, he said Red Flag F-35s were able to escort legacy fighters into high-threat areas without losses.

Asked if an F-35 could be expected to win a close-range dogfight against most other aircraft, Lt. Col. Scott Gunn simply declared, “Without a doubt.” Gunn, an operational support squadron commander at Eglin AFB, Fla., F-35A evaluator pilot, and former AFA-Mitchell Institute fellow, flew one of the aircraft on the 10.5-hour flight from the United States to France.

Jeff Babione, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 general manager, said the company is now delivering five aircraft per month, and 220 of the fighters are now in use by eight nations and at a dozen operational bases. The unit flyaway price for USAF’s most recent “Block 10” purchase is down to $94.6 million, continuing a trend line Lockheed hopes will lead to a cost of $85 million per aircraft in 2019.

The next three years will bring even more expansion, Babione said. According to company projections, if Congress were to approve a block buy for Lots 12, 13, and 14, that would not only lower production costs it would bring roughly 440 aircraft into production—nearly doubling the 448 aircraft that were purchased through Lots 1 through 11. Almost half the jets to be delivered over the next five years will be for international customers, he noted.

Heidi Grant, USAF’s deputy undersecretary for international affairs, told reporters at the show that international “demand and interest” in American fighters is greater than she has ever seen in her nearly seven years in the SAF/IA job. Two specific areas stand out, she said. Nations are interested in the F-35, but many are also interested in F-16s. This applies to both new ones and what she described as “excess F-16?s”—previously owned Vipers that would be passing from one user to another.